Artist News Business News Digital Labels & Publishers Top Stories

Joe Rogan and Daniel Ek commit to beefed up and more transparent content polices in response to Neil Young boycott

By | Published on Monday 31 January 2022


Both Joe Rogan and Spotify boss Daniel Ek have now formally responded to the headline-grabbing criticism that has been made about COVID misinformation in the former’s podcast and on the latter’s platform. Ek has pledged more transparency about his company’s policies for dealing with harmful content, while Rogan says he will look into ways to ensure his programme is more balanced in the future, in particular by having “more experts with differing opinions, right after the controversial ones”.

The official statements from Rogan and Ek were in response to a rapidly building backlash against Spotify that was kickstarted by an open letter from Neil Young just one week ago. He in turn was responding to a letter signed by more than 250 scientists and medics earlier this month which said that the Joe Rogan Experience podcast had “a concerning history of broadcasting misinformation, particularly regarding the COVID-19 pandemic”.

Although that latter letter took particular issue with an edition of Rogan’s podcast which featured controversial COVID vaccine critic Dr Robert Malone, the scientists and doctors said that the programme had regularly given a platform to controversial opinions about the coronavirus, with both Rogan and some of his guests at times arguably implying those controversial opinions were proven fact.

Spotify, of course, is the exclusive distributor of the ‘Joe Rogan Experience’, it having signed up the controversial podcaster as part of its strategy to dominate the podcasting market. As a result, the experts said, it was responsible for ensuring that potentially damaging misinformation did not appear in the programme. And yet, they claimed, Spotify did not have a misinformation policy.

In his letter, Young echoed all the concerns expressed by the scientists and medics, and then stated that he wasn’t happy for his music to feature on a platform that exclusively distributed Rogan’s podcast. With that in mind he concluded by requesting that his management and label remove his recordings from the Spotify service, which they subsequently did.

In an initial short response to that development, Spotify insisted that it did, in fact, have detailed content policies which had been applied to Rogan’s podcast. But, it added, it had to balance concerns around some podcast content with the free speech rights of creators.

Nevertheless, it added, it had removed thousands of podcast programmes because of concerning COVID content over the last two years. As for Young’s boycott, it was disappointed to lose his music and hoped he’d return at some point.

If anything, that statement further pissed off the growing number of people supporting Young’s position regarding COVID misinformation in Rogan’s podcast, within the music community and well beyond.

On Friday, Joni Mitchell announced she was not only supporting Young’s position but she was also joining his Spotify boycott, declaring: “I’ve decided to remove all my music from Spotify. Irresponsible people are spreading lies that are costing people their lives. I stand in solidarity with Neil Young and the global scientific and medical communities on this issue”.

A number of other artists expressed their support for Young on social media, some saying they were also looking into removing their music from Spotify. Or that they would join the boycott if they could, but that their recordings were controlled by record labels or other business partners which, unlike Young’s label partners at Warner, didn’t seem so keen to lose Spotify income on a point of principle. Speculation also started to build that maybe a younger big name artist would join the boycott too, which would ramp things up even further.

Beyond the reputation damage being done to Spotify as Young’s protest gained momentum, there was also the question as to whether the whole thing would result in a significant number of cancelled subscriptions.

Although podcasts have been key to Spotify’s growth strategy in recent years – and Rogan has been integral to that podcast strategy – the company’s primary revenue stream is still subscription sales, and the majority of those premium subscribers primarily pay to access music. And Apple quickly got on to the socials to capitalise on its rivals woes, bragging about how its music service still had Young and Mitchell’s recordings streaming way.

Whether Rogan rage alone would persuade many subscribers to cancel is debatable. Although the controversy over alleged misinformation in its flagship podcast was building upon all that existing criticism of Spotify over the royalties it pays to music-makers, and the commonly believed narrative that Spotify’s rivals pay significantly more to artists and songwriters when their music is streamed. Somewhat ironically, that narrative is also misinformation, but it is nevertheless widely believed, including by many in the music community.

Throw in the fact that Spotify is behind its rivals when it comes to making higher quality audio available – another bugbear of Young’s – and maybe there were now enough factors in play to motivate a noteworthy number of Spotify subscribers to move to another music service. Some artists also started promoting apps that help move playlists set up in one streaming platform to another platform, the importance of personal playlists often being seen as a reason why many people won’t ultimately switch streaming services.

Alongside all the speculation about cancelled subscriptions, there was also plenty of commentary about Spotify’s share price. Now, that’s been declining pretty much constantly since November, having previously surged at various points during the pandemic as it became clear that lockdowns were, if anything, helping home entertainment services. However, many people blamed last week’s declines on the mounting Rogan controversy.

Either way, it was increasingly clear that something more significant than last week’s short and lacklustre official statement from Spotify was needed. I mean, even the company’s other exclusive podcast partners were starting to issue statements about the Rogan controversy, with the organisation founded by Harry and Meghan Windsor – which has an albeit not especially fruitful podcast partnership with the streaming firm – telling the press that it had raised concerns about COVID misinformation on the platform last April.

It never seemed likely that Spotify would go as far as to break its connections with Rogan. As noted, he is key to the company’s podcast strategy. The company also paid an awful lot of money for the exclusive partnership. Rogan and his podcast are incredibly popular too. Plus, there are plenty of pundits ready to pile in with some cancel culture rage if they see Spotify attacking the free speech rights of podcasters.

However, more information about Spotify’s mysterious content policies and a commitment to raise the editorial standards of Rogan’s podcast both seemed necessary. And that’s what we got last night.

“A decade ago, we created Spotify to enable the work of creators around the world to be heard and enjoyed by listeners around the world”, Daniel Ek wrote in a blog post that opened with the free speech argument. “To our very core, we believe that listening is everything. Pick almost any issue and you will find people and opinions on either side of it. Personally, there are plenty of individuals and views on Spotify that I disagree with strongly”.

However, he conceded, “we know we have a critical role to play in supporting creator expression while balancing it with the safety of our users. In that role, it is important to me that we don’t take on the position of being content censor while also making sure that there are rules in place and consequences for those who violate them”.

“You’ve had a lot of questions over the last few days about our platform policies and the lines we have drawn between what is acceptable and what is not”, he went on. “We have had rules in place for many years but admittedly, we haven’t been transparent around the policies that guide our content more broadly. This, in turn, led to questions around their application to serious issues including COVID-19”.

“Based on the feedback over the last several weeks”, he added, “it’s become clear to me that we have an obligation to do more to provide balance and access to widely-accepted information from the medical and scientific communities guiding us through this unprecedented time. These issues are incredibly complex. We’ve heard you – especially those from the medical and scientific communities”.

First things first, Spotify is publishing its “long-standing platform rules” which apply to all podcasters on the service, including those it has mega-bucks exclusivity deals with. Those rules will soon be translated into lots of different languages too, so everyone knows Spotify’s position.

Following the lead of the social media and user-upload platforms, which were also criticised for helping distribute misinformation about the pandemic, Ek went on: “We are working to add a content advisory to any podcast episode that includes a discussion about COVID-19”.

“This advisory will direct listeners to our dedicated COVID-19 Hub, a resource that provides easy access to data-driven facts, up-to-date information as shared by scientists, physicians, academics and public health authorities around the world, as well as links to trusted sources”.

“We will also begin testing ways to highlight our platform rules in our creator and publisher tools to raise awareness around what’s acceptable and help creators understand their accountability for the content they post on our platform”, he added.

But will the forthright and opinionated Rogan agree to be bound by those rules and allow advisory notices to be attached to editions of his show that include COVID chat? Yes, yes he will. In a video uploaded to Instagram he thanked Spotify for its support and apologised for all the hassle his podcast has caused the streaming firm. And he committed to do a better job of ensuring editorial balance on his programme.

“These podcasts are very strange because they’re just conversations”, he said. “And oftentimes I have no idea what I’m going to talk about until I sit down and talk to people. And that’s why some of my ideas are not that prepared or fleshed out, because I’m literally having them in real time, but I do my best and they’re just conversations, and I think that’s also the appeal of the show. It’s one of the things that makes it interesting”.

That format might mean that controversial guests with controversial opinions are not sufficiently challenged. Although, he insisted, that doesn’t mean he’s wrong to book controversial guests with controversial opinions. After all, he insisted, while the likes of Malone might be controversial, he is nevertheless “highly credentialed, very intelligent, very accomplished”.

And, he argued, some of the controversial opinions the likes of Malone shared earlier in the pandemic – including around the origin of the virus and whether vaccinated people could catch and spread COVID – subsequently became more widely accepted in the mainstream.

“I do not know if they’re right”, he added. “I don’t know, because I’m not a doctor, I’m not a scientist. I’m just a person who sits down and talks to people and has conversations with them. Do I get things wrong? Absolutely. I get things wrong, but I try to correct them whenever I get something wrong. I try to correct it because I’m interested in telling the truth”.

“I’m interested in finding out what the truth is. And I’m interested in having interesting conversations with people that have differing opinions. I’m not interested in only talking to people that have one perspective”.

Although not willing to change his booking policies, Rogan nevertheless says he supports Spotify’s plans to signpost expert opinions on things like COVID alongside his podcast.

And he is open to ways he can improve his programme, for example by doing more research ahead of episodes featuring particularly controversial guests and including experts who can challenge controversial opinions right after they have been made. Rogan was keen to stress that he has already had experts on as guests who strongly disagree with Malone et al, but those often go out weeks later after the controversial remarks are aired.

“I will do my best to try to balance out these more controversial viewpoints with other people’s perspectives so we can maybe find a better point of view”, he said. “I don’t want to just show the contrary opinion to what the narrative is. I want to show all kinds of opinions so we can all figure out what’s going on and not just about COVID, about everything, about health, about fitness, wellness, the state of the world itself”.

Meanwhile, Ek concluded: “I trust our policies, the research and expertise that inform their development, and our aspiration to apply them in a way that allows for broad debate and discussion, within the lines. We take this seriously and will continue to partner with experts and invest heavily in our platform functionality and product capabilities for the benefit of creators and listeners alike. That doesn’t mean that we always get it right, but we are committed to learning, growing and evolving”.

It remains to be seen if these commitments from Rogan and Ek will placate their critics – in the music community and elsewhere – without angering the Rogan faithful.

Some will likely say that Ek’s commitments are no different to those already made by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and the commitments of those other platforms have had mixed success when it comes to dealing with harmful content. Plus, with Rogan’s podcast, Spotify has more control and should therefore go beyond what other the digital platforms have done. Some will also criticise that the particularly controversial episodes of Rogan’s podcast are still available.

But maybe some of the younger big name artists who were considering speaking out will reckon that at least Ek and Rogan have said something of substance, and maybe now isn’t the time to rock the boat on this particular issue – especially when they are working with labels still recouping advances and other costs out of those Spotify royalties.

Whatever happens next, and whatever your views on all this may be, it is interesting to note that – while Ek insists some of the measures he’s now committed to have been in the pipeline for a few weeks – it wasn’t the letter from 250+ experts that got such firm commitments from the Spotify chief and its most famous podcaster. That took the intervention of one Neil Young.

This week’s Setlist discusses the Young v Rogan debate further.

This white paper from CMU Insights and Friend MTS discusses the wider issues around harmful content on digital platforms.